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Historic building goes from hardware store to apartments, stores in downtown Evansville

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GINA R. HEINE
November 14, 2007
— When 83-year-old Clara Cade decided she wanted to move back to Evansville from Florida, she signed on to an apartment, sight unseen.

The site is a new loft-style condo on the second floor of the newly renovated Eager building, formerly Ace Hardware, on East Main Street.


“I love the place,” Cade said amid boxes she has yet to unpack. “I love it here very much. And I think they’ve got beautiful apartments here.”


An insurance agent and tenants already have moved into the offices and apartments, while construction nears its final stage in other portions of the 1904 building. Curious residents can tour the building at an open house Friday and Saturday during the city’s Main Street opening/holiday kickoff celebrations.


“It’s another wonderful restoration of a building that has been important to the commercial district since it was built in 1904,” local historian Ruth Ann Montgomery said. “And it just brightens Main Street.”


The Eager building, built by the Almeron Eager estate, was the home to the Economy Store until the 1930s. It was second in size only to the Grange store in Evansville. Local legend has it that when they were built, they were the largest department stores west of Milwaukee, Montgomery said.


Since then, building occupants have included a Ben Franklin store and most recently Ace Hardware. It has survived two major fires and at one point talk of tearing it down, Montgomery said.


“It’s been through a lot,” she said.


The dust has yet to settle on the main floor of the building, but construction should be complete in a few weeks, said Roger Berg, an owner of the project. The office/retail space on the ground and lower levels is ready to be divided into custom-size sections. The developers are working on several leads to fill the building, said Jeff Farnsworth, an owner of the development who also has his State Farm office in the building.


The other partners in the project are brothers Rick and Ed Francois.


Eight apartments upstairs are complete and include a fireplace, the original brick (some of it charred from the fires), granite countertops and wooden floors.


The highlight of the project was cutting out the middle of the ground floor to make room for a restored windmill that was made at Baker Manufacturing around the turn of the 20th century.


“It really needed to happen,” Farnsworth said of the renovation. “The timing was just when it had to be. We’re really committed to growth in downtown. The city had to make a commitment, and we had to make a commitment.”


When the Ace Hardware left in spring 2006 for its new home on the east side, developers knew something had to be done right away.


“We were really concerned that if we didn’t do it now and a tenant moved in, it would never happen,” Berg said.


The timing was right when Main Street closed for construction this summer. The building was renovated while the street was torn up.


The $2.4 million project includes the renovation and purchase of the building. Developers received $500,000 from the city through a tax incremental financing district. A state commerce loan provided $280,000.


Some people might think the project will be a cash cow, Farnsworth said.


“But if you put the numbers to this, an investor would laugh,” he said. “It just doesn’t work. Maybe 15, 20 years from now when everything appreciates, maybe then.”


In the meantime, the developers say, they’re happy to give back to the community.


Berg hopes the development will bring businesses and vitality to the downtown.


“We think it’s a project you have to believe in Evansville to do it,” he said.


IF YOU GO

Evansville will have a celebration Friday and Saturday in downtown to mark the opening of its Main Street makeover and the beginning of the holiday season.


Friday
3 p.m. Ribbon cutting and cake, sponsored by city of Evansville
3 p.m. Evansville Community School District’s marching band
3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Treats and historical tour at Eager Free Public Library
4 to 7 p.m. Carriage rides, sponsored by Evansville Chamber of Commerce
4:30 p.m. Third- and fourth-grade drum and xylophone ensemble at Eager Building
6 p.m. Kris Adams performs Indie, folk and folk rock at Real Coffee, sponsored by Evansville Community Partnership
Saturday
10 a.m. to noon Santa arrives on fire truck at Grange Mall, sponsored by Chamber of Commerce
10 a.m. Kids’ activities at the old Dollar Land, 26 W. Main St.
1 p.m. Band “Undercover” performs at the Eager Building. Part of East Main Street will be closed to vehicle traffic to allow people to carryout beer or wine from local businesses to visit other businesses and to listen to bands. Sponsored by Evansville Community Partnership.
2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. School choir carols along Main Street and at local businesses.
4 p.m. to 7 p.m. “The Blue Olives” perform at the Eager Building, sponsored by Evansville Community Partnership.
7 p.m. East Main Street reopens to vehicle traffic.
8 p.m. at La Trattoria, 1 W. Main Street, band “Saboroso” playing scola de samba or School of Samba.
ABOUT THE WINDMILL

A restored windmill made at Baker Manufacturing around 1903 is the centerpiece of the renovated Eager building, 7 E. Main St.


The windmill sits on the lower level and rises through the ground floor. It measures 16 feet in diameter.


The windmill came from Brian Rasmussen, and it was located on his father’s farm in Kewaunee, said Geri Knapp of Baker. The windmill sat on top of the barn to grind feed. Rasmussen sent it to a company in Michigan for restoration.


Baker employees reassembled the windmill inside the Eager building.


The Baker factory in Evansville made the windmills from 1879 to 1960.



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